Parataxis Paraschmaxis

I was out watering some things in the garden this evening & looking north I could see a big thunderhead, though the sky overhead was clear, just a little hazy. Coming indoors just now, I checked the weather radar on the computer & could see the cell of storms I had been watching moving along the Canadian border. Gardeners, even poor ones, are interested in the weather. As I was watering, I was thinking about parataxis again. My neck is killing me because I pushed the mower around the lower part of the yard for an hour this afternoon. I have a bad neck. I read Beckett last winter, but he doesn't seem like a summer writer. I'm reading Powers now. In a comment to my earlier post about parataxis, Jonathan Mayhew wrote, "People who are interested in this kind of writing like the play between the absence of hypotaxis and the connections they are able to make." That sounds just a little like some sort of Calvinist doctrine of election to me, though I don't think that was Jonathan's intent. Either you get it or you don't get it, you're in or you're out, going to heaven or not & there's nothing you can do about it. When arguments about poetry resort to taste, there is always an implied value judgment, I think. Carole is away this evening visiting her friend Amy & the dogs are driving me a little bit crazy. I'm mostly reacting as a reader here & my intend is not to dismiss the paratactic wing of American poetry. I do want some justification, though, that goes beyond taste. Jonathan cites Ron Silliman's work in general, writing: "Each sentence of a Silliman poem, for example, is completely syntactical. The parataxis occurs at the discursive level, in the space between the sentences. In other words, they don’t add up to a paragraph of discourse." That's generally, but not strictly, true & since I would like to get down to cases, here are two consecutive sentences from Silliman's Tjanting: "Inversions face affect. Idea vary the do eye." The first may ask the reader to consider when semantic meaning has a grammatical consequence, the second sends one spinning outside the frames of English. Moving on, it would be interesting to count what percentage of Silliman's sentences in Tjanting are fragments. The fragment has a long & glorious career in English & is, yes, "perfectly grammatical," but it is a grammar with consequences, tending to subvert the relations between mind & nature. Be that as it may. I take that subversion to be the central project of the "turn toward language" in recent American poetry. But if I pick up Silliman's text & begin reading, what difference does it make if I skip ahead or skip back? Tjanting appears to me to be a kind of transcription of consciousness. What I want to know as a reader is why I should give this particular transcription my attention? I have a different experience if I pick up Lyn Hejinian's My Life, which contains plenty of parataxis, but within a larger hypotactic structure. Is that right? The youngest terrier, just out of puppyhood, is sitting at my feet gnawing a Nylabone for all she's worth. As a writer, now, what I'm looking for is a right relation between ground & figure. When we turn toward language, do we abandon the figure & at what cost? Jonathan knows a lot more about jazz than I do, but doesn't improvisation require a theme, a phrase, a common point of contact with a larger context? Blues lyrics, which I know something about, are often paratactic, veering from one subject to another with only a vague thematic ground; still, the figures are clear in themselves. And a blues song only demands a few minutes of my time. Formally, it plays against a known structure. When William Carlos Williams published "The Red Wheelbarrow" (& his other objectivist poems), some critics mocked the poem by printing it as a sentence. Today, that seems sophomoric, but as with many things sophomoric, there is a misguided grain of insight. Why is this sentence special, we want to know. I think I could answer that question for "The Red Wheelbarrow." Actually, I have answered it (with varying degrees of success) over a long career of teaching poetry. Perhaps there is what we might call the "red wheelbarrow problem" in poetics.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

7 thoughts on “Parataxis Paraschmaxis”

  1. Did that. Spent this morning reading “2197.” (For others who might want to take a look, there is a pdf of the Ubu Editions “2197” here. Sorry if this cuts into sales of the new complete Huts, Ron.) And what I take from that reading is that you were very consciously subverting normative grammar, sliding non-grammatical sentences up against grammatical ones, creating a kind of boing-boing effect in the reader. The poem is further evidence, though that Johathan’s assertion about your work being “perfectly grammatical” at the level of the sentence is not correct. So let me ask a question: Is “2197” a piece of writing or a piece of reading? (Perhaps this goes to your recent remark that you prefer poetry to poems. Is there an analogy to preferring writing to reading?)

  2. As a reader, I’d like to interject that it’s not necessarily unhealthy for a writer to prefer writing to reading. Such writers are less likely to provide useful criticism, but we don’t turn to art purely for the artist statements.

    “When arguments about poetry resort to taste, there is always an implied value judgment, I think.” Does the “I think” turn your sentence from a value judgment into a taste description? That’s the way I often end up deploying “I think,” I think — when there’s something I can express only as a universal declarative despite its fleeting, speculative, or eccentric status. Anyway, I genuinely feel comfortable trying to describe an experience without making any implicit claim that it ranks higher on an imaginary linear experiential scale than some other experience would. Two-dimensional space supports an infinite set of different one-dimensional rulings, and culture takes place in many more than two dimensions. My view of a blackbird doesn’t block Stevens’s thirteen.

    Getting down to cases is a good thing, and a hard thing, and (I’m sorry to say) never a guaranteed thing. I would be very impressed if you were able to convince everyone you’ve ever encountered that “The Red Wheelbarrow” is a top-notch sentence. Which, as you know, was originally encased untitled in a top-notch book which also included a prose CHAPTER 19, followed by a CHAPTER XIX (“I realize that the chapters are rather quick in their sequence”), followed by this happy news:

    Take the Pelham Bay Park Branch
    of the Lexington Ave. (East Side)
    Line and you are there in a few

    Which makes me wonder if some of the aesthetic disconnect here is that you’re focusing on individual lines. Looking for “the good parts” in Silliman would be as melancholy a chore as looking for the swinging solos in a collective improvisation. He seems to me more like Patricia Highsmith than like Oscar Wilde: he works in units of book.

    Anyway, I agree that parody can sometimes help us work out aesthetic puzzles. For example, your paragraph reads nothing like any of Silliman’s or Hejinian’s poetry. So one approach might be to ask why that is. What labor would be needed to improve the fit in either direction?

    Too many places to go from here, too little time…. Does the Pelham Bay Park Branch run on weekends?

  3. Ray, as I was writing I realized how naturalistic my paragraph was compared to Silliman’s paragraphs. I was slightly embarrassed, but that’s the way it goes. I’ve been thinking a lot about what embarrasses us lately & trying to hold embarrassment close. You ask a bunch of good questions, but I’ve been working in the yard all day & will have to put off a more complete response until morning.

    Still, WCW’s sentence depends upon the need for a connection between the fact or experience & the word. I’ve always taken that for granted, but realize it is now a position that needs defending. Really, I have been scribbling notes to myself all day with hands dirty from the garden.

    Added a moment later: I don’t want this to be about Silliman, except insofar as he is representative of a method. It was Jonathan who chose the example. For the record, in my few exchanges with him, Ron has been utterly without presumption or cant. (So has Jonathan, too. I’m just clearing the ground so we can all camp here.)

  4. I had meant that one Calviinistic sentence to mean that there shouldn’t be a value judgment –necessarily –about people who like certain textual effects or not. It’s like trying to justify spicy food. There will be a different tolerance level. I had in mind Paradise more than Tjanting, of Ron’s work. I had in mind too the insistence on the sentence as unit of meaning, and the almost classical clarity of grammar and syntax in this work, and others similar to it.

    Why should you pay attention to this writing as opposed to something else? I would say if you don’t enjoy it, don’t read it. Think of how you might respond to someone who asks why pay attention to a more difficult later text of Beckett. If the pay-off’s not there, why not read Joanne Kyger or Eileen Myles or any number of other wonderful writers. Just as some people think readers of Beckett are mere masochists, others think readers of Silliman are the same, but the truth is that there is pleasure there in both cases, for those for whom pleasure is there.

  5. I was just wondering if there was an argument to be made that goes beyond taste. I’m all for pleasure.

  6. True-Life Mission Statement: I write to maximize my opportunities for embarrassment. (You can see why I’ve never been comfortable with the idea of doing it for a living!)

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